Thursday, November 5, 2015

Dogs and bicycles usually do not mix too well

Most dogs are normally friendly but seem to go nuts when exposed to a moving bicycle. After all, they are descendants of predators who chased down prey for a living. Some are just being naturally playful but others are, at best, protecting their territory or at worst, out for the kill.   The negative consequences for cyclists can vary.  You may collide with the dog, which could bring you down or you might lose control and fall trying to evade the creature. It’s possible (though less likely in my opinion) that the dog is trying to bite you and, if it successful, the bite could also have serious consequences.

In terms of evasive action, there are many choices but it’s important to realize that there is probably no “one size fits all”. The dog’s intentions and behavior, the road, the traffic conditions and others things make every situation different and will require split-second evaluation and judgment on your part.  So, what are your options?  In all instances, slow down.  By doing so, you increase your control of the situation. In the case of oncoming dogs, it’s even more important that you slow down and be prepared to stop as there is a very real risk the dog may misjudge your speed and turn in front of you into your path.  Ignoring the dog or dogs might be the best thing if you are absolutely sure they are either going to stay where they are or at least remain on the side of the road. 

The average dog can sprint about 19mph and some manage considerably faster speeds.  Out-running them is rarely the right thing to do. Not only is it unlikely that you'll always be able to outrun the dog but panic sprinting means you will probably not be paying close attention to the road, traffic and your fellow riders.  Some people believe that yelling loudly works but many dogs are unlikely to respond to commands and it might aggravate them further.  In fact, one rider I know is a dog whisperer; he uses a very calm voice with any dogs and it seems to be quite effective.  Spraying with water bottles is of limited use; most dogs quickly realize that the water is of no danger to them. They might even find it refreshing.  

Trying to hit them with the pump might be effective but is fraught with risk. It’s probably not a good idea to be gesticulating wildly while at the same time trying to control your bike. Similarly, unclipping and trying to kick the dog is risky and the dog might just see your leg as an easy target.  Stopping and putting your bike between you and the dog or dogs is probably effective. You then feel more in control. In most instances, the dogs will simply continue to bark and then hopefully give up and go home unless you're actually on their land.

There are various devices on the market such as the Ultrasonic Dazer which emits high frequency sounds that supposedly makes dogs very uncomfortable.  They might work under some situations but not always. Let’s hope the dog is not old and deaf.  Similarly, some people recommend air horns that come in small can-sized versions and deliver a very loud burst of sound that hopefully shocks most dogs.

Pepper Sprays have a lot of appeal to many riders. Various versions are available; the most popular one is but is supposedly more powerful. You have to get the dog directly in the face for it to be effective so use the spray variety, rather than the “cloud”. Be sure not to spray yourself.

If you encounter unrestrained dogs and if the worst happens, these are steps you and/or your riding buddies should take: 
  1.          Seek medical attention for any injuries. Keep good records.
  2.          Take photographs of any injuries or bike damage.
  3.          Gather information, including the location of the dog's residence and the names and addresses of any witnesses.
  4.          Familiarize yourself with any local animal ordinances. There are some in many counties and most cities. Recognise that some are directed more to either preventing dog abuse or rabies control rather than protecting other road users.
  5.          Notify local animal control (usually city or county). This is very important even if no accident happens. If they take no action on the first report, they might on the second …... or third.
  6.          Consult a lawyer if you want to take further action.

 I love dogs and would truly not wish to harm them. In all instances, the problem is not with the animals, it’s with the owners. While there is no statewide law in Texas requiring that dogs be on a leash at all times, many counties and most cities do have laws requiring dogs to be on leash, or prohibiting them from being unrestrained when off the owner’s premises. Unrestrained dog are considered a public nuisance and with few exceptions, courts have ruled that violating such laws can be the basis of liability.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Bicycles, wrecks and solutions

This year has been a bad year for cycling accidents. Of our regular riding companions, a dozen or so have had significant mishaps on the road.  Fortunately, none of the wrecks have resulted in life-threatening or permanent injuries though several did end up with broken bones and periods of rehabilitation that extended to several months.  None involved automobiles, thank goodness, and many did not even involve other bicycles.

In sharing these musings, let me be absolutely clear that I am not in any way pointing fingers. Most of us have wrecked at some point in our cycling lives and, sadly, may well do so again. How can we minimize the probability that this will indeed come to pass? How can we, collectively, improve our safety record?

I have struggled to determine whether there are common threads between the incidents. In my career in the petroleum business, we were taught that all accidents are preventable. Is this true? What, if any, are the lessons learned from the incidents that we have experienced?  I suggest that there are arguably three categories of accident that the group has experienced:

First.  Riding in a way that is too aggressive for the prevailing conditions and misjudging hazards such as pavement on poor repair, obstacles in the road, unanticipated corners etc.  Best practices: always ride defensively and assume the worst.

Second. Sub-par bike handling skills. This could manifest itself as unstable or erratic riding and inability to negotiate hazards when they do appear unexpectedly. Best practices: learn good riding techniques, practice whenever you can and be receptive to mentoring by experienced riders. Remember: “to be aware of one's own opportunities for improvement is the first step towards learning” and thus we need to develop a receptive learning environment.

Third. Poor group etiquette: riding too close to others, failing to announce intentions, losing concentration. Sometimes compounded by momentary lapses of attention. These issues are especially critical when conditions are poor such as roads with lots of cracks in the pavement, ultra-steep hills. Best practices: do not ride in tight groups or pace-lines unless both you and your fellow riders are comfortable with that, always stay super-alert, communicate frequently and back-off (safely) from the group whenever necessary.

Resources are available. The League of American Bicyclists and other organizations do offer classes and or exercises in bike-handling skills and group riding skills. Maybe this would be a start?  Remember that ultimately you have responsibility for your own safety but that does not imply that we do not also have accountability for the safety of the group we are riding with.

Note: this summary excludes two other issues: (a) dogs which will be the subject of another blog post sometime soon and (b) the condition of your bike which could also cause accidents in some instances: frequent servicing by a competent mechanic should be treated as an investment, not as an expense. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Guglielmo la Gazzella

Let’s ride Coast to Coast; from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean.  We did just that and thanks to friends Gil Rappaport and Mike Perlmutter, I was invited on the trip, organized by Ciclismo, a high-end Italian bike touring company.

Eight days of riding,  about 400 miles or so and 24000 ft of climbing, give or take. We made it up a "virtual" Annapurna, even if we missed climbing Everest and along the way, I must have consumed three dozen macchiatos and even more glasses of fine Italian wine. Here we start from Pesaro on one of the rare wet days. 

The senior guide did warn us that the trip would be quite intense (his word).  He was right: in addition to the days' rides there were history lessons, Italian lessons, wine tasting and various tours. We are pretty much on the go from about 6 in the morning till 11 at night and by the end of the trip, we understood what he meant. What a hardship!

We had hills-a-plenty but they were usually longish rather than steep.

All the towns we traveled through were "drop-dead" gorgeous with narrow winding streets that must have held many secrets. All our hotels were centrally-located and several were been built in the 13th or 14th centuries. I suppose I can forgive the fact that the décor and furnishings of a few were inevitably rather tired looking.

Over many parts of Central Italy, massive volcanic activity spewed hundreds of feet of ash (tuff), some of which resisted erosion and formed the foundations of many of the medieval hill towns.

Each town square has its Duomo and Town Hall.  Most are huge and impressive though often rather inelegant.

And I was constantly being warned what might happen if I do not mend my ways.

On the occasion below, a well-known wine merchant hires a Michelin-star chef to cook for us. Sadly (for him), though the food and wine were delicious, no sales transactions were consummated. I guess most cyclists are just not into $80 bottles of wine.

Here I was trying to blend in with the local bathers at the Saturni thermal springs. More white quivering flesh than you can shake a stick at.

Occasionally, we did allow our achievements to get the better of us ......

But then, we did make it, finishing up at Porto Ercole, yeah ...... !!!!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Yorkshire cycling interlude

The Yorkshire Dales are a series of predominantly east-west rivers in Northern England separated by high fells of dramatic limestone crags and moorland often covered in purple heather.

 The lower levels of the Dales are divided up into arable fields by dry-stone walls, some of which date back to Anglo-Saxon times. 

Gushing springs spew torrents of clear water from the karst limestone. These form becks (streams) that are quickly turned golden brown as they flow through the peat on their way to the rivers below.

Old, old villages, in some instances dating back a thousand years or more, remain clustered on the rivers.

It was the stark beauty of the Dales, and the steep climbs that separate them, that attracted the Tour de France to the area for Le Grand Depart in 2014.

 Some remnants of Yorkshire’s enthusiasm for the tour remain.

A year later, I fulfilled one of my “bucket list” goals and spent a couple of weeks in the northern Dales (primarily Wensleydale, Wharfedale and Swaledale) revisiting Stage One of the tour …. on a bike, of course. Sharon and I rented a house in Middleham, where the Castle, built in 1170, had been the childhood home of Richard III.  

This then, was the base from which my nephew Nick and I set off on our two-wheeled adventures.  

 Of course, cycling up and down the valleys is not too difficult but to cross from one valley to another involved climbs that are not unusually 25% and, on the corners, can be even steeper.  In some instances, these gradients are configured in spectacular hair-pin bends; super-challenging to climb and scary to descend. 

I had rented a bike from a shop near Richmond. It was a reasonable quality carbon Bianchi but alas, equipped with woefully unsuitable gearing. Ideally one would have a 34/32 as the low gear for this terrain but my machine had only a 36/25.  One of my more embarrassing moments of the trip was on one notorious hill when I simply could not turn the pedals. It was a case of get off or fall off. 

 The other awkward incident was on a descent in wet weather when the brakes simply could not bring the bike down to a safe speed. That resulted in an unfortunate encounter with a bridge at the bottom where the turn was just too sharp. The medieval structure won but thankfully only bruised knuckles resulted.

Rural Yorkshire is a very bicycle-friendly part of the world.   Even in years long past, establishments welcomed cyclists as witnessed by this old CTC sign.

Of course, morning coffee with delicious “elevenses” is an essential part of a bike ride and many cafes go the extra mile for customers who arrive on two wheels. For example, Zarina's cafe in Kettlewell has a 10% discount for cyclists, good inventory of maps, several bike racks, floor pump etc. etc.  Most importantly, try their delicious scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. Five star.

Yorkshire is having to replace a livestock-based economy with tourism though a few remnants of the traditional way of life remain.  This grim manifestation of English rural life was a surprise:  the results of the local mole catcher's efforts. The use of traps had died out with the introduction of poison. However when strychnine was outlawed in 2006, the traditional method of mole-slaughter returned.

 Of course, recreation in the evenings usually centered around one of England's greatest institutions.

Friday, August 7, 2015

HLM: Helmet, Lights, Mirror.

There are many ways a cyclist can improve his or her safety out on those shark-infested roads.  In recent years, one of my mantras has become:  HLM: Helmet, Lights, Mirror.

The research and literature about bicycle helmets is extensive, confusing and often misleading. In my opinion, the argument for the use of bicycle helmets by everybody and at all times is wholly compelling.  End of story. Back in the mid-80s I wrote an article for the CCC newsletter entitled “Heads You Win – if you still have one” so I was preaching helmet-lore way back then. More objectively, a controlled study of the effectiveness of bicycle helmets published in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that: bicycle safety helmets are highly effective in preventing head injury and are equally important for adults and children. This is one of many pro-helmet articles in the medical literature. Google all the oceans of data if you will but rest assured, they do work.  All the ballyhoo about helmets promoting recklessness or decreasing the number of cyclists out on the roads is just that .…. smoke and mirrors. Nearly all helmets on the market in the US pass the minimum legal safety criteria so in my case I usually shop on price and color .…. it has to be blue.

 I was a late convert to the use of day-time lights, especially a bright strobe on the front.  I am truly astonished as to how visible a cyclist is who has  good lights.  The bike and the rider can be almost invisible in the shadows but the light keeps blinking away with a range of ¼ mile or more.  Motorists can no longer say “Oh I am sorry, I did not see you”.  The advances in lighting technology are remarkable. Rechargeable, highly-efficient lights are now fairly inexpensive to buy and run.  No excuses. I use a Cigolite Metro 400/Hotshot 2W combo set for about $70 but you can get perfectly good ones for much less.  You can also buy extra mounting brackets if you want to use them on more than one bike.

Mirrors are also invaluable. Not only can you see rear-approaching traffic but you can also keep track of your riding buddies (if you are ahead!).  The argument against mirrors is that a rider might be less inclined to communicate with drivers by looking backwards before making a maneuver so it is important to keep this in mind and always signal your intent. Mirrors are usually mounted on the helmet, glasses or handlebars. The one I use is the Safe Zone  Advantages: Built like a tank and should last forever, easily adjustable, large mirror surface. Disadvantages: looks like a tank, twice the cost of many others.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Tale of a Mountaineering Englishman in Texas

The story starts in 1924 when George Mallory and Andrew Irvine disappeared on the North-East ridge of Everest during their attempt to make the first ascent of the world's highest mountain. They were last seen when they were about 800 feet below the 29,029 ft summit (8,848 meters).  Now fast-forward to the early ‘90s when Mallory’s grandson, George (Junior) was training for a climbing expedition to Everest’s North Ridge. He came up with the idea of riding his bicycle up and down the 1,084m Mount Donna Buang in Australia, until he climbed Everest’s total elevation in one ride. In 1995, and after several attempts, he attained the magic 8,848 meters of cumulative climbing.

After Mallory’s successful “Everesting” climb, nothing much happened till about 2006 when others started to attempt the same feat.  Andy van Bergen of the "Hells 500" group in Australia then started to record the various efforts and these were subsequently documented on the Strava website. A few years later, Andy Coulbeck, a 51 year-old Englishman living in Austin started to explore Hells 500’s Everesting website and became hooked. Most successful attempts had been in Britain, Australia and New Zealand with a sprinkling in North America.  Would it not be the coolest thing to become the first successful Everester in Texas? And thus Andy’s idea became an obsession.

The rules are simple: the attempt must be on one hill and it must be in one single ride. You can stop but you cannot sleep.  Selection of the hill or mountain is of paramount importance and clearly what might work for one rider might not work for another. Most riders select grades of 4 – 9% and complete anything from 20 – 150 repeats over cumulative distances of 100 – 250 miles, taking 12 – 30 hours. That’s quite a range of permutations.

Andy’s first attempt was on Rain Creek Parkway in Austin. However, he had not determined the climb’s exact elevation and hence how many repeats would be needed.  After 22,000 ft. of climbing, he abandoned the attempt. Clearly more planning was going to be needed. After evaluating several climbs, he selected Big View Drive for his second attempt, also in northwest Austin. It was steep enough but offered some variety of climb with a leveling-off in the middle. He was to make the attempt in July.  He obviously had doubts about the high Texas summer temperatures but Andy was ready and he was impatient. Being first in Texas was now a primary motivator and who knows who else was out there thinking about it. Noel Coward did not get a vote ***.

So on the evening of Saturday 11th July, Andy set off to ride 70 hill repeats over a 2-mile (two-way) course. He started alone but during the grueling hours ahead he was supported by his wife Misako and a number of cycling friends, most notably David Ely who went “above and beyond”.  The night started in relative peace and tranquility but any thoughts of serenity were soon quashed by bouts of loneliness in the small hours of Sunday morning as the grim reality of what lay ahead became apparent.  He had planned to eat a burger during the night and by midnight, he was craving it.  Misako’s mission was thus to find a burger-joint that would still be open.  P. Terry’s provided the answer.

Andy originally planned for 16 minute repeats but as the sweltering Sunday dragged on, his breaks became longer and more frequent.  Any excuse to stop was a good excuse. His repeat times dropped, now 20 minutes, then 24 minutes. Occasional cramping set in but fortunately was alleviated with additional intake of electrolytes. By Sunday afternoon, Andy was exhausted and miserable in the 94 degree heat but quitting was not an option. Not only was his own resolve impenetrable but the support of his wife and friends had resulted in a firm commitment to them. And so at 7:20 in the evening, almost 26 hours after he started, Andy Coulbeck became the first cyclist in Texas to accomplish the Everesting goal of 29,029 ft of hill repeats. He also completed the ride in ambient temperatures higher than anybody else in the world.

When I asked Andy whether he was suffering from a mid-life crisis, he simply gave a wry smile, accompanied by giggles from Misako.  But when I asked him about other crazy adventures that he might attempt, his eyes seemed to glaze over and he stared off into the distance. Misako simply put her head in her hands.

William Hudson, July 2015.

***   "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" is a song written by Noël Coward and first performed in New York in 1931.  The locals grieve when the white men leave their huts, because they're obviously, definitely nuts …… though Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

Thanks to Misako Coulbeck and Jim Donahue for permission to use their photos.  Photo of Everest courtesy of Wikipedia. Photo of Strava record courtesy of Strava and Hells 500.